As Chinese people were in a complex mood of welcoming Lunar New Year and fighting against the spread of the coronavirus, another tragedy went viral on Chinese social media: NBA legend Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter accident with his daughter, Gianna Bryant, six family friends, and the pilot.
Related hashtags were soon trending on Weibo and many people’s WeChat moments were full of commemorative posts to one of the most influential basketball athletes for this generation. Many people who have been hidden in social media for years sent mourning posts online, and more wept their eyes out for the loss of a man who they have been crazy for almost twenty years. They not only mourned an outstanding player’s death, but also mourned for the passing of their youth.
Although the NBA entered the Chinese market back to the late 1980s, its popularity across the country benefited from the inclusion of several Chinese athletes, especially Yao Ming. Growing into an all-star player, Yao not only made himself one of the most well-known celebrities in the country, but also contributed to the NBA craze and the following explosion of the basketball fandom in China. Kids who saved money and bought basketball magazines were the most popular ones in the class and their magazines were passed around the whole class, prized like the most valuable treasure. Many NBA superstars soon became the heroes of many teenagers and their posters were always among the bestsellers. Among all those athletes, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were undoubtedly the most influential ones. Even for those who never followed the NBA, they would constantly argue who was a better one, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant and a “battle” would soon start between supporters of the two. The competitive nature of their legacies continued when James transferred to Los Angeles Lakers two years after Kobe’s retirement. Many Laker supporters, who started to follow the team for Kobe, expressed their lost feeling that their biggest “enemy” joined their favorite team.
In fact, although the media never got tired of comparing them, Kobe and James maintained a good personal relationship. The last social media post Kobe left in the world was to celebrate LeBron James passing him on NBA’s all-time scoring list, and Kobe once joked that he would not say no if Gianna dated James’s son Bronny in the future. Even if they shared different basketball styles, they shared the same life philosophies: to win, to fight, to strive, and not to yield. Kobe is known for many quotations about hard work:
“Those times when you get up early and you work hard, those times when you stay up late and you work hard, those times when you don’t feel like working, you’re too tired, you don’t want to push yourself, but you do it anyway. That is actually the dream. That’s the dream. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. And if you guys can understand that, then what you’ll see happen is you won’t accomplish your dreams, your dreams won’t come true; something greater will happen.” His words inspired an entire generation.
A Chinese blogger once shared his experience transforming his unhealthy diet and overcoming obesity after he became a Kobe fan and decided to watch Kobe’s last game in LA. After Kobe’s death, many Chinese fans also shared how Kobe dragged them out of laziness and motivated them to be who they are now.
Certainly, the contributions of Kobe extended beyond his performance on the court. After retiring in 2016, Kobe produced Dear Basketball to describe how he found his passion for basketball and how this sport shaped him, which won him an Oscar in 2018 for best short animated film. He was always a supporter of the development of youth sports and women’s basketball. His daughter Gianna inherited his passion and talent in basketball and dreamed of playing in the WNBA one day. When asked whether it was a pity that there was no boy in the Bryant family to carry on the career, Gianna refuted powerfully that she was the one who would continue the glory of the family. In recent years, Kobe frequently came to the stadium to watch and share his thoughts about games with Gianna. He founded Mamba Sports Academy to train young talents and he himself also coached in his daughter’s team. If the helicopter had not crashed, Kobe would have arrived in the academy to start another day’s training with girls.
Certainly, Kobe was not perfect. A sexual assault charge in 2003 is his unwashed stain. The criminal case was dismissed, and the civil case was settled out of court and included Bryant publicly apologizing to his accuser, the public, and family, while denying the allegations.
Concluding Kobe’s life, it is neither appropriate to excuse his treatment of this woman, nor fair to focus only on this case. We should leave space to the victim to let her decide whether she wants to forgive, to observe how fame and money play into sexual assault cases. However, Kobe can still be acknowledged as a role model for many kids who hold dreams, and Kobe has also made respectful contributions to a more equitable society, and is loved by many of his fellows and fans.
The time when Kobe’s plane crashed was 4 a.m. in Beijing. Among all stories about Kobe, the most well-known one was when asked whether he had seen Los Angeles at 4 a.m., Kobe said, “I see it often because that is when I start training.” A fan wrote “I’ve never seen Los Angeles at 4 a.m., but I heard the news of your death at 4 a.m.” on his social media. After staying up crying all night, those who grew up under the Mamba spirit decided to honor their hero by facing life more positively, especially under the shadow of a national public health crisis.
As a friend of mine told me, “Kobe used to be my hero. Whenever I find myself lost, I will try to remember who my heroes are. I will honor him by working harder than I ever did and treating others better than I ever had.”